The Trash That Cycles Back

In a state with more coastline than the rest of the United States combined, remote beaches are a big part of Alaska’s wilderness. Those beaches are on the receiving end of a worldwide marine trash epidemic.

But every Goliath has his David, and in this case, a small but dedicated group is doggedly working to clean Alaska’s extensive coastline, one piece of debris at a time.

By Noelia Gonzalez and Hanna Craig – Alaska Public Media

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Who Will Pick Up Our Trash?

When you no longer want it, the water bottle in your fridge will leave your house in the form of garbage and probably take a trip. It could travel to the landfill nearby, but it could also travel to a remote place—like a beach in Alaska.

Even though it is hard to tell where marine debris originates, a significant portion of the trash that accumulates on the otherwise pristine waters of the Gulf of Alaska was once plastic water bottles.

The squashed plastic that in a past life helped you hydrate could float through the oceans at the mercy of the currents and the wind and end up on shore. The water bottle won’t be alone, either. Surrounded by shampoo and hair conditioner bottles, baby toys, buoys, cotton nets, fishing gear, ropes, shoes, electronic cigarettes and myriad other objects, the bottle joins a carpet of trash covering hundreds of miles of Alaska’s remote beaches.

It’s been like this for decades, but the 2011 tsunami in Japan made the problem worse, setting adrift even more trash that would eventually end up in Alaska.

While marine debris is not a problem that’s likely to be solved anytime soon, organizations like Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) have stepped forward as Alaska’s beach cleaners.

They might pick up our water bottles. The duty is tedious, slow and expensive but, “If we don’t do it, who will?” they say.

INDIE ALASKA | Cleaning Marine Debris from Alaska's Beaches

Where is the marine debris coming from? Where is it going to end up? How can we get rid of it efficiently and effectively? Why does it always come back?

The Problem

For 11 years, GoAK has been cleaning up beaches in the Gulf of Alaska, one piece of debris at a time.

The non-profit was founded by Chris Pallister, who went to law school with the goal of using his degree to solve environmental issues. Evolving from a small group of volunteers into a formal non-profit, the organization now employs a crew of around 12 people who work alongside a dedicated troop of volunteers each summer. The cleanup work is funded by a combination of private donations, grants, and larger governmental organizations, such as NOAA.

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              Chris Pallister, founder of Gulf of Alaska Keeper, cleans debris
              on Montague Island.

Since its origin, GoAK has cleaned about 1,500 miles of shoreline, from Kodiak all the way to Kayak Island, including beaches in Prince William Sound.

This summer, the group focused their clean-up efforts on the southeastern side of Montague Island in Prince William Sound. And this year—in collaboration with other organizations, including NOAA, GoAK was able to transport the marine debris to Seattle.

There, approximately 440 tons of marine debris from 11 different sites across the Gulf of Alaska will be sorted and either recycled or taken to a local landfill. An organization called Parley for the Oceans plans to turn some of the debris into a material called “bionic yarn,” which will eventually be used for fabric in clothing.

After three seasons of beach clean-up, seeing marine debris make it on to a southbound barge was the culmination of more than a decade of work for GoAK. The process was arduous, largely characterized by trial and error. There’s no “how to” manual for cleaning up miles of littered coastline in the wilderness.

It was during a cleanup at Gore Point, in the Gulf of Alaska, in 2007 that GoAK discovered the method that would become their mode of operation. First, they start with a plan. They set a deadline and scope the number of days and miles needed to clean a stretch of coastline.

Next: the work.

The crew wakes up early in the morning, takes a boat or flies by helicopter to a beach and starts picking up debris, piece by piece. They’ll use chainsaws and knives, but for the most part, it’s grunt work—lifting hundreds of water bottles or heavy fishing nets, one at a time.

The crew and volunteers put the marine debris in sacks, and later on they put these sacks inside larger heavy-duty bags called “super-sacks.” The weight of these super-sacks varies, but on average each weighs about 200 pounds.

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              GoAK crew member Scott Groves tracks the GPS coordinates of super-sack piles.

After marine debris is secured inside the super-sacks, they’re airlifted with a sling hooked to the belly of a helicopter and hauled off the beach.

In the past, all the debris-filled super-sacks ended up in local landfills, but eventually the costs became too high for GoAK to continue taking the debris to landfills in Homer and Anchorage.

That’s why GoAK looked south this year—as far south as Seattle. The barge arrived there on Aug. 6.

''Every piece of marine debris that is out there is a man made object that someone created and used and somehow ended up in the ocean, and so that's where the solution can start too, it's with people.'' Peter Murphy, NOAA

The whole process of removing marine debris from Alaska’s remote beaches is expensive. Take the helicopter for example—it’s essential, and a set of two choppers runs about $12,000 a day.

GoAK founder Chris Pallister says there’s “no magic technology” to clean up the beaches. From his perspective, GoAK can only hope to procure more funding to help sustain a bigger work crew.

The marine debris issue is a worldwide environmental problem of our time, and it’s nothing new.

              North Pacific ocean currents contribute to high concentrations
              of marine debris in the Gulf of Alaska. Image courtesy of NOAA

Alaska shorelines, and the Gulf of Alaska in particular, are the landing zones for a significant percentage of trash that travels through the ocean from nearby and distant places. Marine debris picked up by GoAK has originated from countries near and far—Russia, Japan, China, Vietnam, the United States and more.

The debris come from a variety of sources, and accidents and natural disasters—like Japan’s tsunami—contribute to the problem. A combination of ocean currents, tides and wind helps explain why all the floating waste accumulates on shorelines in the Gulf of Alaska.

“Alaska sits obviously to the north of a lot of major currents, and one of those is the North Pacific (Current) that moves across the Pacific Ocean… so that current can bring a lot of open ocean debris into the gulf of Alaska,” Peter Murphy explains. He is NOAA’s regional coordinator for marine debris in Alaska.

“Every piece of marine debris that is out there is a man-made object that someone created and used and somehow ended up in the ocean, and so that’s where the solution can start too, it’s with people,” Murphy adds.

The Challenges

There are a number of reasons why cleaning Alaska’s remote beaches is so logistically tough. Chock it up to the “Alaska factor.” Inclement weather can ground helicopters, stalling cleanup crews for days. The summer season is short, about 120 days—a small window for such a colossal undertaking. And then there are the bears. As if cleaning up debris wasn’t hard enough, crews take to the task armed with bear spray.

But the biggest obstacle for GoAK’s mission isn’t in the wilderness, it’s in the office: funding. Getting enough funding to keep GoAK’s work on track has always been a challenge for Chris Pallister.

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              Crew member Tyler Manchester transports debris on
              Montague Island

Pallister estimates that the organization needs about $1 million per summer. That figure accounts for all the logistics, from flying by helicopter to lodging for the crew and volunteers. That’s why his work starts long before the cleanup season, when he travels around the country, especially to Washington, D.C., to court to potential donors, apply for grants and even talk to members of Congress.

Every year, Pallister says, it seems doubtful the organization will pull together the necessary funding to undertake another summer of beach cleanup. So far, however, he’s always managed to put the money in GoAK’s gas tank.

His non-profit was one of the organizations that received significant funding from Japan’s government (via the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation) in 2014 and 2015 – a total of almost $2 million. But that money is gone now, and a new challenge has begun.

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Funding from Japan helped support the barge project, to transport debris the Gulf of Alaska to Seattle. Image courtesy George Knowles / GoAK

According to NOAA’s Murphy, “Groups working together is a great example of finding those innovative solutions to use the resources that are available, and I think that’s going to be a key moving forward… by working together groups can really find ways to stretch those dollars and get done as much as possible.”

However, more money and more collaboration won’t assuage another sobering truth to the problem: marine debris keeps coming.

Ryan Pallister is Chris Pallister’s son. He says the problem frustrates him.

“What’s out there in the ocean right now, even if you stop polluting or throwing marine debris or garbage into the ocean, it will still be coming to shore for centuries,” he explains.

''What's out there in the ocean right now, even if you stop polluting or throwing marine debris or garbage into the ocean, it will still be coming to shore for centuries.'' Ryan Pallister, GoAK

The younger Pallister has been working for GoAK for a decade now. Although he says he still has passion for the work, he says it can be discouraging to clean a beach one day and return the next only to find a new crop of debris washed up in place of the old.

What’s worse, Ryan Pallister adds, is that marine debris on remote Alaska shorelines can sometimes feel like an “out of sight, out of mind” problem. He admits that the magnitude of the problem was totally lost on him until he saw it with his own eyes.

And that’s why Ryan’s dad, Chris, keeps about 200 slides showing Alaska’s trash-filled beaches every time he approaches a potential donor. He hopes the photos will speak louder than his words.

“That’s where my frustration is,” Chris Pallister says —that when people can’t understand the problem they won’t contribute to fix it.

The Solutions

The barge project successfully completed in August marks the beginning of a new approach to dealing with marine debris in Alaska, and the organizations involved hope that similar programs become sustainable in the future.

''You really need to think through and really have logistics in mind to go out, get people on the beach to collect debris.'' Peter Murphy, NOAA

NOAA’s Murphy, who before working in the Alaska Marine Debris Program worked on dealing with marine debris in the Gulf of Mexico after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, explained why the approach should be different in Alaska.

“There’s a very vast and extensive shoreline, and coastline, and many of the places where debris tends to show up in Alaska are really remote places,” Murphy says. “So you really need to think through and really have logistics in mind to go out (and) get people on the beach to collect debris.”

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              The debris arrived in Seattle on August 6, and will be sorted
              for disposal and recycling. Image courtesy Ben Sturgulewski / GoAK

“Someday, somebody has to pay for this,” Chris Pallister says. “Or there has to be an assessment of blame, and somebody has to pay for cleaning this stuff up.”

But marine debris is so endemic to the oceans that holding any single group, country or business accountable is difficult.

Until headway is made on that front, Chris Pallister and groups like GoAK will keep leaning into the tide – raising awareness, soliciting money and picking up debris… one plastic water bottle at a time.